Let’s be blunt: Evangelicalism in America is awash in scandal. Years ago, it was easier to rail against Catholic abuses because they still felt somewhat remote. Yet even a quick glance at the recent report of abuses and cover-ups in America’s largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, will make you cringe. New stories pop up every week. We’re facing a reckoning.
These are not merely news stories we can scan and forget. Like me, you may feel tempted to think these abuses are everywhere in the church. You may start to grow disillusioned and even defeated. If our pastors can’t hold things together, what hope is there for the rest of us? What does this say about the truth of our faith and the power of our Savior? How do we speak about this with a confused and often hostile culture? Here are a few suggestions:
1) Shore up your own heart first.
We live in a culture of reactions. If you hear a friend criticize Christianity based on these recent stories, you’ll be tempted to prepare a defense rather than gauge your own heartache at these revelations. How do you feel about these stories? I get discouraged because I rely on the example of those who come before me. I get angry at the unwillingness of many men to repent. I get self-righteous because “I would never do that to my family!” How do you feel?
2) Reframe the story.
Satan loves to define reality by our circumstances—what our feeble eyes can see and frail hearts can feel. This is an absurd way to look at life. We don’t look at Old Testament Israel for our hope and comfort. If anything, we view our fathers of old as examples to convict us of our own sin. We look to Jesus—the new Israel—who never succumbed to temptation and prevailed for our sake and the glory of the Father. We should not expect heroes of God’s people. We should pray that our true hero would help us in our hour of trial.
3) Confess your own sin.
Years ago, several famous pastors I admired failed dramatically. It was crushing. I modified my whole approach to ministry based on these sad experiences. Why? Because every idol that dragged them to the grave has a place in my own heart. “But by the grace of God” doesn’t do this justice. God’s grace is not our “Get out of jail free” card—it’s our “Safe to repent” card. Own your own failures and struggles and look to Jesus.
4) Don’t excuse sin.
Politicians constantly deflect blame by condemning the other side. We’re the same way. If someone criticizes the church because of these scandals, it’s easy to be defensive or accusatory. “Those are just bad apples!” “Who are you to judge when you excuse this sin and that sin?” These are bad responses. Let’s try: “It’s so sad. I want to weep too, especially because I know the brokenness of my own heart.”
5) Use sin as a springboard to the gospel.
News reports are quick to point out that these abuses are occurring in denominations that believe that women can’t be pastors. The culture wants to make this about gender or about outdated views about Jesus being the only way of salvation. But in doing so they miss the true problem. They don’t like to talk about sin because such a discussion necessarily indicts all of us. Yet if you own up to your own sin and treat sin as the issue, you might find an opportunity to disarm your unbelieving friend and talk about a very specific hope to a very universal problem.
Seek True and Lasting Comfort
Don’t fear the repercussions of these scandals. Grieve. Take your grief to the Savior who alone can offer true comfort and hope. Use this comfort and hope to avoid accusations and defense; instead, humbly offer up your own filthy rags for examination. When we establish this problem as our problem, we can talk about how we can make the Savior our Savior.